As a consequence of the latest attempt at blowing up an airliner, the right-wing fear brigade is cranking up the Islamophobia again. As Faiz Shakir points out at Think Progress, Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin have been demanding profiling for a while. Michelle Malkin has proposed putting Arab-Americans - most of whom are Christians - in concentration camps until their loyalty to America can be confirmed. Rep. Peter King of New York, the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, thinks it would be a good idea to profile people for their religion.
The hate-radio people, naturally, are at their foaming worst:
Radio host Mike Gallagher: "There should be a separate line to scrutinize anybody with the name Abdul or Ahmed or Mohammed."
Nice. Those happen to be among the most popular names in the world. One of them, in fact, is my stepson's name: Ahmed.
From time to time, I've told the story of my family, and I'm not going to repeat it all here. But a synopsis can set the scene.
Ahmed was born in 1980 in Oregon, the year Mount St. Helens blew its top. He and his mother - who is now my wife - reluctantly moved to Libya with her son and husband. He promised it was just for a year. There, in 1981, she had another child, Amira. She loved Libya, where she taught English as a second language to Libyan engineers at Fatah University. And she loved her in-laws, an extended family of more than 200. Her husband, however, fit into the category noted in an Arab proverb: "Every village has its dog." He said he would never return to the States.
To make a very long story short, life for her became hell. A separation ensued, and a divorce. Shortly afterward, her husband abducted Ahmed and Amira. She was not allowed to see or talk with them for the next 15 years. After she and I married in 1990, we spent the next eight years doing all we could to reunite her with her children. The U.S. State Department put up almost as many obstacles as the Libyan government, which required her now ex-husband's permission before it would issue her a visa. No surprise, he didn't say yes. The years passed. My wife sent letters and gift packages, never knowing if they arrived, never hearing a word in return.
Finally, in 1998, under tightly controlled circumstances, she met Ahmed and Amira again for two weeks in Libya as the only American in a group of British mothers and grandmothers in a similar situation as she. Subsequently, she met them again in 1999, the four of us met in Malta in 2000, and in the summer of 2001, Ahmed and Amira came for a six-week visit to the United States. My wife was floating on a cloud of joy. They returned to Libya on September 6. Amira chose to remain there, only changing her mind years later. Ahmed decided he wanted to finish his college degree in the States.
He flew to London where my wife picked him up. It was the beginning of what was, until the past year, a constant hassle at airports for each of us, including my stepdaughter, who moved to the United States in 2005. At first, we understood. We accepted. Like everyone else, we wanted to be safe. So for a while we put a good face on the extra searches, sometimes twice at the same airport, the repeated interrogations in side rooms, the fingers poking around under my stepdaughter's hijab, the supposedly random wandings that took place every time we flew, alone or as a group, and three strip searches. We told ourselves, this isn't about us.
Over time, however, the extra attention became infuriating. If we were on a list, surely it must have become evident that we were up to nothing nefarious. By 2005, we dreaded getting into the airport inspection line, never knowing whether Amira would be humiliated or whether we would miss our flight because of another lengthy interrogation.
I wrote about what I'm going to say now several years ago. This time, however, without giving Ahmed a pseudonym.
He is not filled with Jeffersonian ideals. That was not what he learned about the United States in his decrepit Libyan classrooms. Not many positive things at all did he hear about America. Rather the opposite, in big doses. Being missed just half a kilometer by a U.S. bomb in the 1986 raid on Tripoli when he was 6 didn't get rave reviews at home. The economic embargo either. Yet Ahmed loved America long before he arrived here.
When I first met him and his sister in 2000 on Malta, one of the ancient world's earliest east-west crossroads, Ahmed had primed himself with what he imagined those precious words to mean, plus the music and myth of America as obtained through pirate CDs and the televised action movie. He loved muscle cars. And he had heard that America was the place to get a real education. He was eager to leave Libya behind.
But it's best to let him tell the story, something he wrote in May 2005 for his English comp class. It was his first English course that wasn't taught as a second language, so you may notice some syntactical clumsiness. (Full Disclosure: I corrected some spelling and a few misuses of tense, but every word is Ahmed's.)
The Man with No Country
Although I was born in the United States, I lived most of my life in Libya with my father. In Libya, people live under an oppressive government. One of the most widely known stories happened in the early 1980's. Several university students were taken from their classrooms. They got hanged just tens of meters away from their classes in the campus square. The only thing they had done was not agreeing with the government's point of view. The executions were shown on the government TV. The students did not have any trial. Their lives did not mean anything to the people who killed them.
After I left the U.S. at age 3, all of my connection with my mother was cut for several reasons. The political situation between Libya and the United States was one of them. I did not hear from my mother for 15 years. I did not even know what she looked like because I did not have a single picture of her. The day in 1998 that my sister and I saw my mother after so long was very emotional for all of us.
My mother was the only American who came to Tripoli with a group of mothers from the United Kingdom whose children were in Libya. The mothers had been unable to see their children because of the political problems between Libya and the West, and family difficulties with the fathers. An arrangement between a Libyan government-controlled organization and a social organization in the United Kingdom allowed the mothers to visit Libya to see their children for two weeks.
The next summer, my mother came by herself. I noticed that I was being followed everywhere I went by two men. Clearly, they were doing their job! I was afraid that one day I might disappear if I said or did something that the government and their not very secret police disliked. I felt their eyes were on me even when I slept.
The summer of 2000 I went with my sister to meet my mother and stepfather in Malta and to get my American passport. There is no American consulate or embassy in Libya. I took my passport back to Tripoli in my shoe. Luckily, I was not searched.
In the summer of 2001 I decided to go with my sister to visit the United States for the first time in 18 years. It was love, sort of, at first sight.
When I came here, I thought that this country was going to be my home. At the Los Angeles airport, I saw people in the line where the sign said "Americans check in here." Those Americans were of African, Asian, South American and European descent. We were treated equally.
I stayed here for five weeks. I went to see my grandparents in Oregon, and my stepfather's parents in Colorado. We had a great time at my uncle's cabin near a beautiful lake in Washington. We went by car down the coast of Washington, Oregon and California.
For the first time, I saw the Pacific Ocean and the redwoods. Everything was so beautiful. I saw that people spoke out against the government without fear of being followed or arrested. I felt the freedom in the air. I loved this country so much that I decided to live here permanently. I wanted to be an American, an American-Arab or Arab-American. I did not care which.
I told my mother that I wanted to live with her. She was thrilled to hear that.
I had to take my sister back to Libya, tell my father what I had decided and get my college transcripts. On my way back to Tripoli my mother and stepfather went with us all the way to the gate of the airplane to say goodbye. When I left on September 6th, I was treated like any American. I was so proud of my blue passport.
I remember the night I talked to my father about coming to live in the United States. I saw tears on his face. He told me, "Son, you are a man now and you can make your own decisions." I remember that night very well because the day after would change my fate forever.
I was having lunch at my friend's farm when his cousin came running to us. He told us that an airplane had crashed into a skyscraper in New York. My first reaction was that it must have been an accident. We went to the TV to see what was going on. I was standing not believing what I was looking at when we saw the other airplane crashing into the second tower. I felt like a bullet went through my heart. I could not stand on my feet. When I went back home, my father asked me whether I still wanted to go to the United States. I was determined to go. I was not afraid.
I came back to the United States two months after September the 11th. Everything was different, like day and night. The United States was at war. This war was with an enemy that the government had little knowledge about. I saw how the airport had transformed from almost a bus station with metal detectors to a chaos of lines and confusion. There were soldiers with guns, just like in Libya. I was asked many questions about my passport and my family and why I was in America. They asked me the same questions several times. All of a sudden, I had become a suspect simply because of the color of my skin, my name and my religion. My blue passport meant nothing to them. Instead of an Arab-American, I was now an Arab-Suspect.
I understood why this was happening. America was attacked. I thought America was right to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda. I thought that after the war Arabs and Muslims would not be treated differently. I was wrong.
I have traveled by airplane six times overseas and four times in the U.S. in the past three years. I notice that I am selected in their "random search" every single time before I get into an airplane. I have been "interviewed" several times, once for more than an hour. Not only me. My mother and my stepfather are selected every time they travel as well. Also every time before I leave the package claim area I get pulled aside for another full search. All that treatment because my name is Ahmed and my religion is Islam. It is humiliating to have my freedom in the hands of people who don't understand my religion or my culture.
The war on Iraq makes everything worse. What happens at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo shames me, but this does not seem to matter very much to other Americans. When I am in the airport now and they search me I wonder if they would torture me. President Bush talks about how bad Iran and Syria are, and I worry we will have more war against Muslims. I think Bush believes in a Crusade, not in freedom and democracy.
September the 11th robbed my right to be like any other American. September the 11th gave the excuse for the government to chew my freedom and my pride. Government policies let airport authorities digest my American citizenship into a name on the "must search list." September the 11th made the United States act in ways that sometimes makes me ashamed of my blue passport.
I still love America. But I am thinking about moving to another country. I am now worried about my life here. I am worried about what will happen to us if another terror attack happens. Will the government put all of the Arabs or Muslims in camps like what they did to the Japanese in World War II?
Ahmed is now married, has two children, and he did move to another country temporarily. He is living in northern England while working on his master's degree in civil engineering. After graduating, he hopes to return to the United States, possibly to his birthplace in Oregon.
What kind of place will he return to if the Peter Kings and Mike Gallaghers have their way? Will it have become like Libya, where secret policemen still shadow those they consider suspicious? Will his wife's modest Muslim dress be even more of a target for the profilers? Will his name make him an Arab-Suspect for the rest of his life in America? Will he decide perhaps that the place he loves doesn't love him back enough?